Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ah, those romantic youthful days

Expanse (a poem from early in college)

It's not just that, its everything
the sheer tonage of bricks that hang
unbreathing for fear they snap
and crush what struggling life remains.
Pressure from without, and within
unyielding to my cries of shame.
The desert calls, free expanse
expanse within my heart to be set free
free to sing, sing to thee
and not choke the nauseous fumes of tyranny.
O gutter of false joys, wetting
wings that long to soar above the wires
to rest in nest of lofty eagles' eyries
and find within, in eucharistic hollow deep
where Jesus in my heart doth gently sleep
while storms rage, and tattered sails
torn and shredded as my heart
broken by the tempest and its force
beats with ragged breaths and shortened gasps.
Awake my Jesus, awake, and hold me tight
with wisdom come and fill me with thy might
from thy glorious throne dispatch her forth
like a star that shineth from the north
whose shining rays never shining cease
and lead me in a gentle life of peace.

Nathan O'Halloran, S.J.

March for Life - B+

This is good news:
From NBC’s Mike Viqueira
The provision within the stimulus that would allocate money for contraceptive programs through Medicaid will be pulled out of the package.

NBC News confirms that the president called Henry Waxman, the chairman of the committee that inserted the contraception provision into the stimulus during the mark up last week, to ask him to remove the measure from the bill, according to a Democratic leadership source.

In short, the idea has simply become too controversial. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s defense of the program over the weekend, where she indicated that it would be a money saver, was not well received.

So that provision is out.
It offers hope that Obama might be a reasonable individual capable of working across the aisle. At least I hope.  And that is my segway into the topic of the possibility of reasonable discussion on the abortion issue.  I have been on the March for Life now in Washington DC five times.  I have also gone the last three years, and personally, I don't think it's worth much on its own. Unlike many successful demonstrations in the past, it has begun to wallow and to lose interest even in itself, never mind being incapable of any longer really holding the interest of the general public.  It has become too tame, ineffective, and acts as little more than a platform for Republican politicians to advertise themselves.  

And it was even smaller this year, at least from what I could tell.  The mass at the basilica of the Immaculate Conception was not as full as in years past.  People still huddled in niches and corners of small side chapels, and confession lines swelled in the crypt, where sleeping bags dotted the floors.  But there was more marble space visible that would normally have been covered by sprawling bodies.  Applause was scattered and half-hearted during the homily.  Even the next day, the mall filled up slowly, and never reached the size of years past.  All in all, the march itself was a disappointing experience.   

But it was not a disappointing trip.  There were many reasons for hope.  And actually, for me it was one of the more fruitful marches I've been on.  I've always viewed the march as beneficial primarily for one reason.  When I went with groups from Fordham, I viewed the trip on the bus as a pilgrimage opportunity:  to show "Eclipse of Reason," to talk about my younger brother and sister that my family adopted from mothers who decided not to abort their children, and to draw the group into a spirit of prayer.  The march serves as the end point, the destination of the pilgrimage.  

This year I went with Jesuit High, New Orleans.  And there were many great signs.  For the first time, all four high schools in the Southern Province (soon to be Mississippi Valley Province) for the first time were represented.  The Jesuit students mass the morning of the 22nd was as full as I've seen it in four years.  Over ten priests concelebrated -- a rarity in Jesuit circles. These were all signs for me that the Society of Jesus is beginning to swing its massive influence and weight in the direction of the pro-life cause, even if only little by little.  Jesuits are pro-life of course.  But many have been off put by activism over the years, primarily as I can tell because of the pro-life movement's alliance with the Right.  I too have often found that off putting, which is why, if the pro-life movement is ever to gain any ground, it absolutely must become bipartisan.  That is my constant mantra.  

But there was another sign of hope.  The tone of this march was different --  even for Jesuit High, as I was told by veteran chaperones -- than in years past.  Because the inauguration was two days earlier, many Obama supporters had remained in Washington to see the sights.  Many of them walked around with their buttons and pins on.  Our boys also had pins on that said, "I'm pro-life.  Ask me why."  Because of this curious coincidence -- or act of providence -- the venue was set up for many great discussions between our young men and people of other opinions.  

One example was on the metro platform.  Some of my students came over and told me that a few girls about their age on the other side of the platform were making pro-choice comments aimed at our group.  My boys wanted to go talk to them, but they didn't know how to approach. So I walked over and introduced myself, saying I was a teacher and that some of my students there wanted to discuss a little with them the question of abortion.  What resulted was an excellent discussion between four 15-16 year old young men and women.  I simply acted as moderator.  The same occurred the next day at the Washington Monument.  I couldn't help but look at this and see the future of the movement.  The future is not primarily in the hands of diehard right or left wingers who will not change their minds or, more importantly, their approaches to this issue barring a miracle. The future is in the hands of young minds still being molded and formed that can learn, even as they disagree, how to dialogue with love and true interest in the other as an other.  The last two days of the march ended up being a clinic on dialogue.  It doesn't take much looking around our world now to see how much we need that. 

So, signs of hope.  The more I reflected, the more I realized that that role of moderator for our young men and women is a good role to have.  It is the role of Director in the Exercises, where the director is not the teacher or the coach, but rather one who helps guide the other in dialogue.  Learning the art of dialogue is at the heart of the Exercises -- dialogue with one's Maker and with all of creation.  

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Top 50 Religious Themed Works of Fiction

So, I know that lists are completely worthless things for the most part, but I was on a wonderful silent retreat (silent during the silent times), but when the talks were going on (which were kind of boring) I started making this list of Top 25 Religious Themed Fictional Books.  Except that it went from 25 to 50, and it became more of a list of "Works of fiction that at one time or another in my life have somehow enhanced my sense of the religious and the transcendent."  So, it's pretty broad.  And leaves out a lot.  And a lot of them are not very "good" books, I just liked them at some point in my life.   Enough justifications.  I'm leaving on the March for Life tomorrow and need to get to bed, so no authors; just titles.  Let me know if I left off any obvious one.  If it's not on here, I probably haven't read it.  This list also shows off the glaring gaps in my reading knowledge.  

1.  The Brothers Karamazov (Hands down first)
2.  The Lord of the Rings Trilogy  (All of them)
3.  Sophia House (All the top ten books can be rearranged in order, I just had to number them somehow, so I put this one at three)
4.  Mariette in Ecstasy (Hansen.  Go read this.  Great stuff)
5.  Perelandra
6.  Lancelot (Percy)
7.  Blood Meridian
8.  The Razor's Edge
10.  With Fire and Sword; The Deluge; Fire in the Steppe
11.  War and Peace
12.  The Moviegoer
13.  Crime and Punishment
14.  The Great Divorce
15.  The End of the Affair
16.  Brideshead Revisited
17.  Franny and Zooey
18.  Doctor Zhivago
19.  Exiles (Ron Hansen)
20.  Joan of Arc (Twain)
21.  Where the Red Fern Grows (Just cause it's so awesome)
22.  The Power and the Glory
23.  The Call of the Wild
24.  Island of the World
25.  The Old Man and the Sea
26.  1984
27.  One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch
28.  Desert of Love; Viper's Tangle (Mauriac.  I've tried him a lot, but I just don't like him as much as most people do.  Pity)
29.  Cry of Stone
30.  The Road
31.  The Heart of the Matter
32. The Second Coming (Percy)
33.  Anna Karenina
34.  The Silmarillion
35.  Till We Have Faces
36.  Les Miserables (It should definitely be higher, but I've only read an abridged version, so it doesn't really count)
37.  The Wheat that Springeth Green
38.  At the Back of the North Wind (MacDonald)
39.  Into the Wild; Edmund Campion (Krakauer and Waugh.  Bios don't really count, but these read like novels and are so good, I just had to add them.  So I put them together and low in the rankings)
40.  Eclipse of the Sun
41.  Screwtape Letters
42.  The Name of the Rose (Great novel, but just doesn't instill that sense of religious mystery that I was looking for like the others above it)
43.  Fathers and Sons (Turgenev)
44.  Great Expectations (Just to put a Dickens in there.  And I liked it)
45.  The Shoes of the Fisherman (Morris West.  Read a LONG time ago)
46.  Cities of the Plains (I absolutely love McCarthy.  I prefer "All the Pretty Horses" from the Border Trilogy, but this one is more reflective on religious themes)
47.  The Robe; The Big Fisherman (Lloyd C. Douglas.  Kind of cheesy, but I loved them as a kid)
48.  This Present Darkness; Piercing the Darkness (Peretti.  Ditto)
49.  The Alchemist
50.  Siddhartha  

Well, that was fun.  And a waste of time.  But fun too.  Fill me in on some other good ones. Again, this is kind of a random list, at least the rankings.  I would probably move some around if I did it again.  But there you have it.  Cheers.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Seminarians Shouldn't be so Arrogant

Lately I have been fairly busy and unable to write much here. So I'm re-posting something I wrote quite a while ago, in the hopes of getting some more feedback on what people think.  It is a difficult issue for me, not accepting the Church's teaching on it -- that I can do -- but rather understanding better why that teaching is what it is.  I have trouble with that one.   Sarah Butler distinguishes nicely between the fundamental reasons for why only men can be priests -- having to do with the gender of the Apostles -- and the theological reasons, which are those theological explanations that help us to understand better the fittingness of God's economy of salvation in the Church.  So this reflection touches on the latter.  

I guess I regularly get upset at seminarians. God knows Jesuits have their problems, and I could write a litany of what those are. But diocesan seminarians often drive me crazy, and it has to do with pretentions toward grandeur and expressions of self-entitlement. They are, after all, God's special chosen ones, right? So I want to offer these thoughts as an antidote to seminarian arrogance, and clericalism as a whole, which still runs rampant among us. Let me know if you have any thoughts. 

I have argued that the call to the priesthood that Christ offered to men has nothing to do with the fact that men are men, understood as a positive reason, but only negatively. I have also reflected on Benedict's statements to seminarians, that his warnings are primarily against careerism, ostentation, and conceit. I think he mentions these because they are endemic to the masculine tendency, quasi-natural as a pronitas caused by sin.

One reason that I feel I need to theologize differently about the theology of a male priesthood is that I am not happy with the neo-orthodox theological solution. The primary theologian in this regard is Hans Urs von Balthasar. He wrote extensively on the male priesthood, arguing that it was most fitting due to the nature of the Church as a primarily feminine, read passive, community. The Church is a passive institution, receiving its life through grace from above. He symbolically understands the Logos as male, inseminating the Church with the life of grace. For this reason the Church must be feminine. Those who are in the place of Christ, the priests, must be men because they act as Christ did toward the feminine body of the Church, symbolically reflecting his covenant with the Church, continually offering in the eucharist his (seminal) life to the receptive body of the Church. Women do not have the quasi-natural capacity to represent Christ in this way.

My problem with this is that such symbolizing can be turned any which way. Mary is the primary symbol of the Church. She is the "concrete universal" of the Church, as Blondel and De Lubac called her. Her reception of the message of the angel on behalf of the whole world is precisely the mission of the Church. Yet that was not some passive reception. It was an active incorporating and receiving that is the case in all true receiving. And this incorporation played itself out in her offering of Christ to the world as the Church does. The Church is a receiving and giving body, receiving Christ and giving him to the world. Mary is the perfect example of this, as a woman, giving from her womb the gift of Christ. De Lubac, thus, points out how Mary is the example priest of the new covenant. However, Christ then passed on to men this role as priest, and not to women.

For this reason I have to disagree with De Lubac. Mary is the pre-eminent priest of the new covenant. There is nothing in the symbolic representation of a woman's body that prevents her from being a priest. That is simply wrongheaded. Symbols are rich in the Scripture and in the Father's, and they are both feminine and masculine in relation to God and the Church and priests. As a faithful Catholic, I have to believe that men alone are called to be priests. Yet I do not think it is enough to say that that is simply the case from Scripture. That argument has even been debunked by the Vatican. It is not self-evident from Scripture that only men can be priests. Nor do I think the symbolization of neo-orthodoxy is helpful or appropriate.

It is for this reason that I turn to a different theological explanation founded upon the quasi-natural tendency that men have toward violence and domination. From the first curse resulting from Adam's sin, he is cursed in regards to the earth to demand of it its produce, to force it violently to give up to him its fruits. Towards the woman he is cursed to lord it over her, in the same way that Jesus tells his disciples that the Gentiles exercise authority. These are curses of sin, and Jesus makes it clear that "this shall not be so with you." Rene Giraud develops the theory that societies gradually build up guilt until it reaches such a critical mass that they have to violently let it out on a scapegoat that is the mechanism for releasing this tension. What Jesus revealed is not that this is not how societies work due to sin, but that this scapegoat is innocent, thereby revealing this structure for what it is by highlighting it in his own body. Therefore, because of him, we recognize for the first time the nature of this structure. He puts an end to it as necessary by revealing it in himself, in his innocence, so that this structure was finally recognized. For this reason, no other sacrifice is needed except for his, though societies continue to attempt to scapegoat groups.

Men, since they share in this violence as a quasi-part of their nature, are offered by Christ the chance for redemption in their own bodies by being priests, by offering again and again the innocent sacrifice that neutralizes their own violence nature toward domination. This is their "right" as gift, due to a tendency in their nature toward sin.

What about women? Do they not have a propounded tendency due to their own sin? Genesis says they do, it is pain in childbirth. But what is exaggerated in their nature? She is cursed to yearn for her husband, to lose her independence. Man gains "independence" from sin; women lose "independence" from sin. Genesis 2 states that men are supposed to leave father and mother and cling to their wife. Now, because of sin, women cling to their husbands. Yet the mechanism for their own healing is within their own bodies: childbirth. When Paul says that "women will be saved through childbirth," this is not to be read as it often is as through their husband, or by staying at home. It means that their salvation is in their own bodies, in the independence that comes from giving birth in pain, yet still giving birth for the world, offering gifts to the world. Men do not have this capacity to regulate their own domination, so some are offered it as priests, to offer a sacrifice that reflectively heals the wound of their nature.

This is a very elementary theory that needs much more working out. But the healing of the world comes from the wounding of the flesh. This is the purpose of marriage, to wound the flesh in a way that takes me out of myself into another. Women experience this easier than men. Men are thus offered the priesthood as a wound that heals their nature. Does it just end up compounding men's nature? It can. That is why we desperately need better seminary training. So so badly. That is why Benedict pointed to careerism, ostentation, and conceit. Men have taken the antibiotic that Christ offered for their healing, ground it into powder, and begun to snort it. Does that mean we get rid of the antidote? No, we just start using it right. Women need to help men do that. They need to stand up, and we need to let them stand up, and put us in our place as priests. Before the Fall men are to run to women for help, not vice-versa. We need to do that again.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Simple Living

A simple way of living.

We all need it. Benedict XVI continues to be clear about that. Simple living is not for monks or priests or religious. Simple living is one of the most obvious deductions from the first three principles of Catholic social teaching: the dignity of the human person, solidarity, and subsidiarity. Our dignity demands that its brilliance not be tarnished by too many things. Subsidiarity requires personal simplicity as the first solution to world poverty. And solidarity asks that we take on the plight of the world's poor upon ourselves. Benedict made these points nice and clear recently during his comments on the World Day of Peace. He notes:
12. If the poor are to be given priority, then there has to be enough room for an ethical approach to economics on the part of those active in the international market, an ethical approach to politics on the part of those in public office, and an ethical approach to participation capable of harnessing the contributions of civil society at local and international levels. International agencies themselves have come to recognize the value and advantage of economic initiatives taken by civil society or local administrations to promote the emancipation and social inclusion of those sectors of the population that often fall below the threshold of extreme poverty and yet are not easily reached by official aid. The history of twentieth-century economic development teaches us that good development policies depend for their effectiveness on responsible implementation by human agents and on the creation of positive partnerships between markets, civil society and States. Civil society in particular plays a key part in every process of development, since development is essentially a cultural phenomenon, and culture is born and develops in the civil sphere.
He continues to note that globalization is ambivalent as a value, and must be paralleled at all moments by a true understanding of solidarity. This solidarity must take up its roots in Civil Society, as he explains. Civil Society is often that part of a people that comes between family and government. For Hegel it is the broadest part of a nation, spanning all the interactions of people that are not directly familial or political in a strict sense. Solidarity, then, must become the new virtue of civil society. Economics can only fully function, says Benedict, when there is such a thing as a responsible human agent, acting in a responsible fashion, not only towards himself, but towards others. In other words, enlightened self-interest is not enough to make globalization more than ambivalent. Solidarity is also required, an exiting from oneself to dwell in the other.

I kind of like this image of what is means to live a simple life. It means to make another one's own home. Jesus said to dwell in him. Live in his skin. Live in him. Not just a metaphor, but also a reality to be sought. Jesus opened his flesh on the cross so that we could enter in and dwell there. So if we too are going to be able to dwell in others and allow them to dwell in us, then we must be wounded as well. We must go about building a house inside others. The reason this is not colonizing though, is because there is a two-way invitation. Simplicity of life means dwelling emotionally, volitionally, intellectually -- in other words, Personally -- in other people. They become my residence. And if I live in the skin of a poor suffering person, I will have trouble spending my money on more comforts for myself. Indeed, I will want to make my own house more comfortable; but that house is now him.

If I live in Jesus, then I spend all my time and money building my house and making it look nice. That is the Church. And the same is true of the poor. They are my home. If I look to dwell in them, I will want to improve my home. That is their lives. And I will open my flesh to allow them to dwell in me. When's the last time I opened my flesh? It should be every time I receive the Eucharist. As Jesus' body is broken, so is mine. And as I break open, others can come in. A pretty vulnerable moment. The Mass, the Eucharist, have quite a bit to say about economics and a life of solidarity.

Imagine if this understanding of solidarity was the founding principle of Civil Society.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Sunday, January 4, 2009

On Benedict, Liberalism, and Interesting Atheists

Recently Senator Marcello Pera wrote a new book entitled "Why We Must Call Ourselves Christians." Marcello is of a particular new breed of atheists who believe that Christianity must be retained as a cultural phenomenon if society is to survive.  Kind of the polar opposite of the Dawkins type. They almost conjure up spectres of Hume with his radical epistemology and his conservative cultural leanings. What is interesting about this new book is that Benedict XVI wrote the foreword. I have inserted it below. I find it very interesting and would welcome explanatory comments. 
Dear Senator Pera:

Recently I was able to read your new book Why We Must Call Ourselves Christians. It was for me a fascinating experience. With a stupendous knowledge of the sources and a cogent logic, you analyze the essence of liberalism beginning with its foundations, demonstrating its roots in the Christian image of God that belongs to the essence of liberalism: the relationship with God of which man is the image, and from which we have received the gift of liberty. With incontestable logic, you show that liberalism loses its basis and destroys itself if it abandons this foundation.

No less impressive are your analyses of liberty and of ‘multi-culturalism,’ in which you illustrate the self-contradictory nature of this concept and hence its political and cultural impossibility. Of fundamental importance is your analysis of what Europe can be, and of a European constitution in which Europe does not transform itself into a cosmopolitan reality, but rather finds its identity in its Christian-liberal foundation.

Particularly meaningful for me too is your analysis of interreligious and intercultural dialogue. You explain with great clarity that an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the term is not possible, while you urge intercultural dialogue that develops the cultural consequences of the religious option which lies beneath. While a true dialogue is not possible about this basic option without putting one’s own faith into parentheses, it’s important in public exchange to explore the cultural consequences of these religious options. Here, dialogue and mutual correction and enrichment are both possible and necessary.

With regard to the importance of all this for the contemporary crisis in ethics, I find what you say about the trajectory of liberal ethics important. You demonstrate that liberalism – without ceasing to be liberalism, but, on the contrary, in order to be faithful to itself – can link itself to a doctrine of the good, in particular that of Christianity, which is in fact genetically linked to liberalism. You thereby offer a true contribution to overcoming the crisis.

With its sober rationality, its ample philosophical information and the force of its argument, the present book, in my opinion, is of fundamental importance in this hour for Europe and for the world. I hope that it finds a large audience, and that it can give to political debate, beyond the most urgent problems, that depth without which we cannot overcome the challenge of our historical moment.

With gratitude for your work, I heartily offer God’s blessings.
I suppose two points jump out at me. First, Benedict's well known idea that interreligious dialogue is not possible since it implies a logical contradiction. Rather, what we can engage in is intercultural dialogue between those cultures informed by specific religions. I suppose his claim is essentially that dialogue is a product of reason. Therefore, it can confer regarding things discernible by the human senses and knowable by the mind through a process of logic or study. Faith however is a gift of something not ultimately rational and so is not per se dialogical. There can be no dialogue about first principles of revealed religion. Those must be bracketed if any real dialogue is to take place. 

Second, one particular line piqued my curiosity: "You demonstrate that liberalism – without ceasing to be liberalism, but, on the contrary, in order to be faithful to itself – can link itself to a doctrine of the good, in particular that of Christianity, which is in fact genetically linked to liberalism. You thereby offer a true contribution to overcoming the crisis." I am skeptical that liberalism can link itself to a doctrine of the good. MacIntyre has famously argued similarly, that implicit in liberalism is the rejection of any single doctrine of the good. John Paul II made a point of attempting to find a compromise between Rights language and the language of liberalism and the Church's history of Natural Law thinking. Though there is a genetic link there, it is not hard to argue that the differences are greater than the similarities, and so liberalism as a totality should be dropped all together. That is not very feasible though I guess. Which is what Benedict seems to think too. It seems that the new Benedict prophesied at the end of "After Virtue" is not intending to after all lead us out into the desert, but rather to re-evangelize the culture that is in place, which is precisely liberalism. Revitalizing its religious roots and making those its foundations would be his idea. But I'm skeptical. Can liberalism link itself to a single doctrine of the good and still be liberalism? I need some proof. 

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Please, Lead Kindly Light

Ok, I'm sorry to bore everyone, but I'm going to write one of those serious year ending/beginning posts. Bear with my rantings if you are inclined to. Or not.

An acquaintance of mine recently wrote a profound reflection, looking back over his life from the age of 30. In that reflection, he included these words. The rest can be found at his blog here:
As I draw closer to my thirtieth birthday, increasingly I find myself looking back on my twenties with sadness, regret, even disgust. That may sound harsh, but again, when you know what I know, the only possible conclusion is the latter.

Instead of growing in holiness, I seemed to peak, spiritually speaking, at college, and have managed to do most of the things I swore I would never do in the years hence. In fact, I distinctly remember being at college and thinking, I don't want to be struggling with this or that in ten years, I want to be this person having accomplished all these great things by this time. And what happened? Evil got easier and easier. Good became harder and harder. And instead of a progressive ascent up the mystical mountain, at times I find myself, almost thirty, wondering where God went, starting to forget even what he sounded like, what intimacy with him felt like. Some have told me this experience is not all that uncommon for people my age, precipitating a kind of second conversion, a conversion to grace. I remain dubious (or perhaps just jaded).
I don't think it's farfetched to wager that most of us who have striven from a young age to follow God wholeheartedly have had very similar experiences. I often look back at my high school years, and I see there a young man who took a vow of virginity at the age of 14, zealously desiring to imitate the early Church virgin martyrs. I see a young man who would wear a burlap sack under his shirt once a week for mortification, desiring to emulate Thomas More and Francis of Assisi. I see a person who fasted twice a week on bread and water; who wore a pebble in his shoe for mortification; who prayed the Stations of the Cross every Friday; who gave up sugar for 5 years as penance; who prayed for an hour every morning almost every day of his high school years. Sometimes I hardly recognize that man. It is all too easy to apply to myself that convicting verse from Revelations 2:4 that I have so frequently applied to myself over the years: "Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first."
When I entered seminary, a classmate and I had taken an old Ford Ranger with a missing gear across from Seattle to Chicago. Upon arrival we immediately stopped and went to the chapel and knelt before the tabernacle. We asked the Lord to bless and strengthen our vocations, and we spent time simply resting in his presence. How simple things were then, how pure! Not that I was perfectly pure for that matter, but the hope and the lack of hesitation, they strike me as strange and alien, like a painting tucked away in an exhibit that obviously does not belong. Perhaps it is a great work, but the contrast can only now come across as dissonant. Four months later I left, upset with myself for becoming (I thought) a mediocre seminarian, upset over my sins, empty of desire and zeal, instead lonely and frustrated. I did not visit the tabernacle when leaving.

The world cannot satisfy. As Walker Percy would say, the rotation of aesthetic means of transcendence can only prepare a terrible re-entry into the immanent world of the everyday. Soon enough, the rotation wears thin, or happens less often, or eventually fails.
The putrid stench of the mediocre clings to us all, and indeed, seems to touch us even more as we strive for a zealous existence. Nor does the "aesthetic means of transcendence" solve the problem. It has its place, no doubt about it. I myself, a rather hopeless romantic, know of its power. Over Christmas I went down with a friend to the Grand Canyon and spent four days exploring its magnificence. Unless you have been to the Grand Canyon, you cannot imagine its beauty. It is absolutely breathtaking. And in this case particularly, in which it snowed twice, it was even more beautiful. Light snow dusted the bright red rocks. It was almost too much to hike at points, since all I wanted to do was stare and admire. But these moments of transcendence, as incredible as they are, cannot solve the problem of the human spirit. They raise, but they cannot elevate for long. They are expressions of Beauty, a transcendental known by the person, but it is not they which inspire and give perseverance to the desire to do good. Nor for that matter can a burlap sack.

Inspiration by beauty; inspiration by mortification; both play a role. Yet neither satisfy the most unique need of the human spirit. The aesthetic dazzles. But it does not speak, since it is not a person. Mortification purifies. But it does not speak. It is not a person. One of the great contributions of Ignatian spirituality is its theology of attachments. Ignatius saw the primary purpose of the Spiritual Exercises as offering to the exercitant freedom from attachments. All attachments are to be released, so that the most important thing of all can be clung to with a pure and undiluted attachment. This is true of all things, so teaches the great wisdom of Ignatius. Only the voice of one person matters. Nothing else counts if it does not bear the echoes of that voice.

One can be attached to penances, as I was as a teenager. I do not regret in any way my mortifications at that age. But I do remember, for example, when I had decided to do bread and water for the 40 days of Lent. My parents forbade me to continue after a week, and characteristically, I was angry and resentful. I had of course learned nothing from my penance. I was attached to it as an idea -- in a rather romantic way, to tell the truth. The aesthetic can inspire the same degree of attachment. Once again, the mean is taken for an end. Especially for romantic and reflective souls, this is a terrible pain. Why does the beautiful not satisfy? Why do all my penances and works serve to so little purpose? Why does the inspiration of poetry not solve the problem of my indifference to the migrant down the street? The great novel not take inexorably draw me to my knees at the abortion clinic?

There is only one thing that we need. We need to hear a Personal Voice. If there is one thing I have come to believe, this is it. Only the personal draws; only the personal inspires without dropping one back into darkness. And so I have found myself left in only one place at the end of this year. I am left, not looking for beauty or inspiration. To look for those is to be looking for the wrong things. The one thing I must look for is the personal voice that is speaking to me at this moment. I am not wrong to look for this in beauty, but I am wrong if I do not hear the sound of beauty as a personal voice. The same is true with penance. If with penance I only hear myself, then I receive nothing. It must be Christ. That child must speak to me. And he came buried in hay.

More and more, what I hear that voice tell me is that I have been given a Way. In the Society of Jesus, I am offered a path. Dorothy Day frequently speaks about the need to follow a way of life, to have a Plan by which one lives. The voice will give us that plan. I was given mine. It means doing the Examen twice a day; praying the breviary; hearing the Voice speak through the lives of the poor and the unborn, the helpless. Yet how I struggle to live this life. And it is in these moments that I look back at the rosy glow of high school. Or even college years. Years when I went to regular adoration and prayer meetings. And then I look at myself now and think, have I grown? Am I any different except for being worse? Am I the Jesuit I want to be? Or do I do many of those things that I always despised in other priests and Jesuits? And then I have to realize again that it does not matter if I am the Jesuit that I want to be. What matters is if I am the Jesuit that Christ wants me to be.

Yet I do approach my second semester as a high school teacher with hope. I can look back at my years in New York and recognize a healthy change, at least for myself at this point in my life. In New York, occupied as I was in studies, my life was fairly unscrutinized by others -- even by my rector. I could disappear into the 6 million people of Manhattan, and no one would know what I was doing. Here in New Orleans my entire life is under scrutiny. And with this comes freedom. Freedom to fully be a Jesuit, since that is what I was created to be. When others look at me and hold me to what I am called to be, then I am free. I may struggle and complain, but I am free.

So I guess that is where I am, in rather muddled language. I'll conclude with a quote from Father General Francis Xavier Wernz when he missioned the first Jesuits from Leon to work in the now New Orleans Province. Let these words urge us all on to listening more closely and confronting with more strength -- strength does not come from ourselves -- the demons of our age. Abortion continues to bloody the hands of our country. Israel is bombing the hell out of the Gaza strip. The Congo is a mess. Human lives are bought and sold for science and sex. So we listen:
For a certain languid way of living and laboring no longer suffices. The work which lies ahead demands vigorous men and those who reach out with great -- nay, the greatest -- alacrity and courage, and who, not content with the labor of some few days and years, press on toward ampler things to be endured or undertaken, desiring only that thence the greater glory of God be derived.
I think of Father Thomas, SJ, founder of the Lord's Ranch, lying for 9 months on his deathbed, praying intensely for those around him. The voice of Christ in the poor and the unborn was too strong for him to focus on his own problems and pains. That voice speaks too insistently for me to sit and watch television in the evenings when my appointment with the Lord remains unkept. Such are the challenges of this year. Peace to all.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ